The case of red is winging its way from Old Trafford to Steve Bruce.
Make no mistake, Arsenal, despite a poor start and a general lack of sharpness in the final third, deserved to win here to apply the pressure on United, the league leaders, ahead of their trip to Liverpool. Arsène Wenger had demanded a victory to maintain his team's pursuit of the championship, which he admitted had become an "obsession" and any thoughts of the Champions League tie against Barcelona at the Camp Nou on Tuesday were firmly on hold.
Yet the goal simply would not come for them. Arsenal created chances to score but Sunderland, for whom the goalkeeper Simon Mignolet distinguished himself and Titus Bramble was a titan in central defence, held firm. Wenger simmered with fury and frustration at full-time and his anger was directed at the officials, whose decisions he felt had denied his team on two occasions.
Replays showed that Andrey Arshavin was onside in the 87th minute when he raced on to Nicklas Bendtner's throughball to finish – the assistant referee Andy Garratt raised his flag – while, moments earlier, having outstripped Bramble, Arshavin seemed to be pushed inside the area as he sliced his shot wide.
Bruce said a penalty award would have been "harsh", arguing that Arshavin had got his effort away before the contact from Bramble, but he could afford to joke about the offside call. "It was a fantastic decision by the linesman," he said. Wenger was typically waspish. "My job is to deliver games; the referee's job is to make the right decisions," he said. "It is frustrating that the two decisions went against us. They punished us severely, especially the offside that wasn't." In a different post-match interview, Wenger said that he was "too disgusted to speak about it". He added: "These things can have an impact on the league. Justice has not been done and it's not the first time."
Sunderland did not look like a team on a run of four straight defeats but it is sometimes wise to expect the unexpected from them. Awful at Everton the previous weekend, they gave Bruce the response he wanted. Even Wenger praised them for "the quality of their defending". Further forward, the winger Stéphane Sessègnon, who drew a smart first-half save out of Wojciech Szczesny, caught the eye.
There was a disjointed feel to Arsenal from the outset, which the home supporters were not slow to pick up on. As ever, the fans ran the gamut of emotions; for the neutral it was pulsating theatre. Wenger's team stepped it up before half-time, with Jack Wilshere, who played in the advanced central midfield role, and Samir Nasri to the fore. The Frenchman was a joy to watch. Bendtner was denied twice by Mignolet before the interval.
There was a fractious undercurrent. Arsenal complained about a few challenges – Bruce argued back with the fans behind the dugout – while Johan Djourou caught an accidental elbow in the face from Sulley Muntari. Wilshere took a couple of heavy challenges and Wenger reported that he had suffered an ankle injury, which would need to respond to treatment before Barcelona.
Anxiety, though, was the order of the day. As the minutes ticked by, so the nerves became raw. The home crowd applauded the substitution of the ineffective Denílson. Those in red dared not err. Wilshere and Nasri were booked for dissent. Arsenal dominated the second half and, as Sunderland clung on to what they had, the script felt familiar. With passions running high Wenger's team turned up the heat in pursuit of the decisive goal, but this time there was no breakthrough.
Arshavin shot too close to Mignolet when well placed; Nasri drew a fine save out of the goalkeeper from a free-kick; and Marouane Chamakh, the substitute, thumped a header against the crossbar. There were the two contentious incidents involving Arshavin and, at the very death, Bendtner fluffed a close-range header to send Wenger into meltdown on the touchline.
If the goal would not go in for Arsenal, it almost did in the 84th minute for Danny Welbeck, on loan from United, who Bruce sent on as a substitute. On his first appearance since a serious injury in early January, he controlled brilliantly and shot only to be denied superbly by Szczesny.
Now that would have been a story. As it was, Welbeck's permanent employers could be happy enough.
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
JOSH BEDNASH, Myclubarsenal.wordpress.com This was really disappointing, especially after United lost in the week. We had a chance to close the gap on them but Sunderland played well, harried us and gave us no space to play our football. We looked jaded and were far from our best. We missed Fábregas, Van Persie and Walcott, as well as Song. There was no creativity today and it's so cruel that we are going to Barcelona with nowhere near our best side for the second year running. The second half today was a bit better than the first, but without Van Persie we don't have any options up front. I prefer Chamakh to Bendtner, but it didn't happen for him today.
The fan's player ratings Szczesny 7; Sagna 6, Djourou 6, Koscielny 6, Clichy 7; Diaby 5 (Rosicky 77 6), Denílson 6 (Chamakh 61 6); Nasri 8, Wilshere 7, Arshavin 7; Bendtner 7
PETE SIXSMITH, SalutSunderland.com We did what Barcelona couldn't and thwarted Arsenal by keeping a solid shape throughout and hanging on at the end. We even had our own chances. Arsenal weaved pretty patterns but if you concentrate you can stop them – and that's what we did. Mignolet made two exceptional saves, while Henderson looked the equal of Jack Wilshere. Danny Welbeck almost scored but Arsenal's keeper Szczesny pulled off the save of the game. So in the end it was a good day out for our loyal fans and for David Miliband, a former Arsenal fan and now Sunderland vice-chairman.
The fan's player ratings Mignolet 9; Ferdinand 8, Mensah 8, Bramble 7, Bardsley 8; Muntari 8; Sessègnon 7, Henderson 8 (Colback 87 n/a), Richardson 6, Malbranque 7 (Welbeck 68 8); Gyan 8 (Elmohamady 78 6)
To take part in the Fans' Verdict, email email@example.com
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010